July 29 – Auto-trophy Room

Today’s factismal: Autotrophs don’t drool.

If you’ve seen “The Big Bang Theory”, odds are that you’ve heard the catchy little song that goes before it. But what you may not have caught is the fact that there are several errors in the song. The most notable of these is the line “the autotrophs began to drool”. The problem with it is that autotrophs don’t drool.

“Hold on, Bucky!” I hear you cry; “how can you know that?” I’m glad you asked. It all has to do with the special word autotroph (geek Greek for “self feeder”). Autotrophs are critters that don’t rely on other critters for their food; instead, they rely on light (phototrophs, like plants) or chemicals (chemotrophs, like the rust-eating bacteria on the Titanic). Because autotrophs don’t need to eat other critters, they don’t really have mouths. And without mouths, there is no drool. (They may have a phagocytic organelle, but that’s too pedantic even for me.)

A variety of autotrophs (My camera)

A variety of autotrophs
(My camera)

But what they do have is specialized parts of their cells that work to turn the light or chemicals into energy. For the phototrophs, that specialized part is known as a chloroplast because it is where the green (“chlor”) goo (“plast”) is stored. That green goo is known as chlorophyl (“green lover”) and it turns sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into sugar, which then gets used as energy elsewhere in the autotroph. And the neat thing about that is that it makes autotrophs the basis for the food web here on Earth; if they didn’t turn sunlight or rust or whatever into food, then we’d all starve. So while they may not drool, we certainly do thanks to them!

Of course, they don’t take kindly to being turned into food.Whenever an autotroph-eating bacteria comes near one, the chloroplasts in an autotroph can clump. And that’s the idea behind today’s citizen science project. In the Clumpy project (clever name, no?), you’ll look at images of plants and try to identify where the chloroplasts have clumped together. Knowing that will help the biologists determine how to make autotrophs happier, which will mean more food for us, which will make us happier. Want to take part? Go to:

July 28 – Cope with it!

Today’s factismal: Edward Drinker Cope is roughly one million times younger than the dinosaur named for him.

In the annals of paleontology, two names stand before all of the others: Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. These two got along about as well as an allosaurus (discovered by Marsh) and a amphicoelias (discovered by Cope). In part, their rivalry was because both men had egos almost as large as the animals that they dug up. And in part, their rivalry was due to their very different backgrounds; where Marsh was an old-fashioned, old-style gentleman who was astute enough to have a rich uncle, Cope was an nouveau riche entrepreneur who paid for many of his digs using the profits from a silver mine that he discovered.

Drinker (the man, not the dinosaur) (Image courtesy Oceans of Kansas)

Drinker (the man, not the dinosaur)
(Image courtesy Oceans of Kansas)

Those backgrounds showed in the quality and quantity of their publications. Cope had to publish his papers quickly between his other work; as a result, he published a lot of papers, but they were filled with errors which led to personal embarrassment when Marsh would publicly correct them. Marsh could afford to take the time to triple-check every detail before submitting his papers, and so he published fewer papers that were less likely to have errors (though Marsh did commit the biggest blunder ever in paleontology). Over the course of fifteen years, they would engage in a public “duel” in which they vied to name the most, the biggest, and the best preserved dinosaurs. Who won is debatable (unless you say it is science, thanks to all the new data we gained). Marsh found more species (80 to 56) but Cope published more papers (1,400 to 200) and found bigger specimens.

Thanks to Cope’s influence in the field, he has had a dinosaur named after him. The Drinker nisti (“Drinker from National Institute of Standards and Technology {who paid for the dig}”) is actually related to the one named for Marsh, which just means that the rivalry is older than you thought! Drinker (the man) was born 174 years ago today, and Drinker (the dinosaur) lived 155 million years ago, which means that the man is about one millionth as old as the dino.

If you’d like to get involved with your very own bone wars, why not head over to the Encyclopedia of Life and start checking out all of their neat dinosaurs? And, if you’ve got a picture or a sighting of a living critter, why not add it to their ever-growing set of data?

July 27 – I sea you!

Today’s factismal: Seabirds have a specialized gland that removes salt from their blood and pumps it out their noses.

If you ever see a seabird and it looks like it has a runny nose, don’t worry that it has the avian flu. Instead, take a closer look because you are seeing the bird’s salt gland in action. As you might guess from the name, the salt gland removes excess salt from the bird’s blood stream and pour it out the nose as a stream of incredibly salty water.

A dominican gull with its salt glands on display (My camera)

A dominican gull with its salt glands on display
(My camera)

But why does a seabird need a salt gland? For the same reason that turtles, sharks, and other critters that spend most of their time at sea do: because the ocean is very salty. That salt water makes its way into the bird’s food and into its drink which means that the bird ends up eating a lot more salt than it needs (sort of like the average teenager). This is not good for the bird’s kidneys which means that it would live a very short life if it weren’t able to get rid of the salt.And that’s why birds (and other critters) with salt glands do so well in their environment.

A brown pelican showing off its salt glands (My camera)

A brown pelican showing off its salt glands
(My camera)

Of course, no matter how well-adapted a critter is, eventually it dies. Most sea birds die at sea, where they are food for the fishes that were once their food. But some die on the beach where they become food for thought. By tracking the number of seabird deaths and the number of each species that are seen, scientists can use the seabirds as an early-warning system for environment changes, from pollution to freak storms to red tides to new diseases. But there’s an awful lot of coastline and only so many scientists, which is where you come in.

A herring gull in the sunset (My camera)

A herring gull in the sunset
(My camera)

The Seabird Ecological Assessment Network, or SEANET for short, is looking for some citizen scientists on the East Coast who are willing to report where and when they saw a dead seabird – or even a live one! If you’d like to help, then head over to their website:

July 25 – Hey, Eddie!

Today’s factismal: Reptiles are found on every continent except Antarctica (and they used to live there!).

If you want to call a group of animals successful, then you have your choice of how to define the term. You can base it on the distribution of the critters: those that live in more places are more successful. Or you can base it on the longevity of the critters’ clade: those that have been around longer are more successful. Or you can base it on all of the other critters that have evolved out of that clade: having more branches on their tree of life makes them more successful. But no matter how you define success, the reptiles have it.

An alligator in Texas (My camera)

An alligator in Texas
(My camera)

They are found on every continent except Antarctica and used to live there until it got too cold for them about 15 million years ago. Reptiles are found in a wide variety of environments, from the rocky shores of the Galapagos to the lush rain forests of North America. They eat an incredible variety of foods, from salty seaweed to juicy grubs to each other. And the reptiles have been around for a long, long time; the earliest known reptile lived some 338 million years ago. But most importantly, they gave rise to a wide variety of other types of animals, from the dinosaurs (who gave rise to the birds) to the mammals (who gave rise to us and the internet).

An iguana in Florida (My camera)

An iguana in Florida
(My camera)

But success has its price. In the case of the reptiles, it means getting pushed out by younger and more vigorous critters, like humans. In Los Angeles and other parts of California, the native lizards have almost entirely disappeared, thanks to changes in the environment caused by building and water use. It has gotten so bad that now researchers are out looking for lizards, and they’d like your help. If you happen to live in Los Angeles (or are just stuck in a tourist trap ☺), then why not give them a hand by reporting any lizards that you see to the RASCals Project at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum:

July 24 – Light Of My Life

Today’s factismal: Many experts can identify animals by the color of their “eyeshine”, the light reflected by their eyes.

Shine a light outside at night and you are almost certain to see something startling: two glowing dots staring back at you. Even when the light is too faint to reveal the animal’s shape, you can still see those eerie glowing dots. But why should an animal’s eyes shine in the dark? And why can some people tell which animal it is just from the color of the reflection?

Eyeshine from a zebra (Image courtesy Instant Wild)

Eyeshine from a zebra
(Image courtesy Instant Wild)

That reflected light is known as eyeshine, and not all animals have it; for example, humans don’t have eyeshine, nor do squirrels. In general, most diurnal animals don’t have eyeshine and most nocturnal animals do (though exceptions abound on both sides). And that is the reason for the eyeshine: it is caused by a reflecting layer known as the tapetum lucidum (“bright tapestry” in geek-latin). That layer bounces light that passes through the retina back for another pass, and increases the eye’s sensitivity in low light situations (i.e., at night). But, evolution being what it is, the tapetum lucidum isn’t the same in all nocturnal animals. In some animals, it is made up of a layer of guanine crystals. In others, it is parallel fibers. And in yet others, it is a mish-mash of different structures. And that’s why different species have different colors of eyeshine; the tapetum lucidum reflects light back, but the color of the light that gets reflected back depends on the type of the tapetum, just as the color reflected off of a wall depends on the color of the wall. As a result, owls and other birds have red eyeshine, as do foxes and rabbits. But cats and frogs have a greenish eyeshine, and raccoons have yellow eyeshine.

Eyeshine from coyotes (Image courtesy Instant Wild)

Eyeshine from coyotes
(Image courtesy Instant Wild)

Now this is more than just a fun way to identify animals at night; it is also a way to identify animals in night-time cameras, like those at Instant Wild. They’ve got a collection of photos taken by camera traps across the globe, and they need your help in identifying the animals. To pitch in (and see some great examples of eyeshine), set your browser to:

July 23 – Bird’s Eye View

Today’s factismal: The first Landsat was launched 42 years ago; we are now up to Landsat 8.

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Landsat!

The first Landsat (Image courtesy USGS)

The first Landsat
(Image courtesy USGS)

If you ask any geologist or oceanographer what the most successful satellite program ever is, odds are that they’ll tell you it is Landsat. The program started in 1966, when scientists realized that using different colors of light (a trick known as multispectral scanning) could help them see the world in a new way. But the colors that they used weren’t red, green, and blue; instead, they used colors like infrared and ultraviolet. Though the human eye can’t see those colors, many plants can. They either absorb the energy for use in creating sugars or reflect it to attract insects and other pollinators. So by using these unusual colors of light, the scientists were able to map out where plants were growing and what the soil and rocks look like better than just using visible light would allow.

A four color image taken by Landsat (Image courtesy USGS)

A four color image taken by Landsat
(Image courtesy USGS)

But it took time to develop sensors that were good enough and small enough to fit into a satellite – six years of time, to be exact. The first Landsat was launched in 1972, and proved to be an immediate success. Though it only recorded 1,692 images, they were something special. In those images, Landsat discovered new islands and showed forests being logged and the remains of ancient cities.

The first image taken by Landsat (after a lot of processing), showing Dallas, TX (Image courtesy USGS)

The first image taken by Landsat (after a lot of processing), showing Dallas, TX
(Image courtesy USGS)

Since that original launch, seven more Landsats have been launched (though only six made it to orbit). And the current edition, Landsat 8, was put into orbit just over a year ago and is giving us amazing new images of the Earth. If you’d like to help put those new images to good use, then why not join the Geo-Wiki Project? They want to improve land cover maps using resources such as Landsat. To join, head on over to:

July 22 – Feeling Crabby

Today’s factismal: Live mitten crabs are sold by vending machines in Chinese subways.

The mitten crab is an ugly critter. They get their name from the hairs that cover their claws, making it look as if they are wearing mittens, but that isn’t their worst feature. They have four sharp spines on their bodies, but that isn’t their worst feature, either. They have sharp, pointy legs for walking on the bottom (they don’t swim), but that still isn’t their worst feature. What is their worst feature? That they are invading Europe and North America.

A mitten crab (Image courtesy Mitten Crab Watch)

A mitten crab
(Image courtesy Mitten Crab Watch)

These crabs are native to Asia, where they are a popular delicacy. Mitten crabs are so popular there that they are sold through vending machines and are seen on many restaurant menus; the crabs from some areas can fetch upwards of $50 per pound. They are traditionally served with ginger and vinegar, and are eaten through the latter part of the year. More than 200,000 tons of mitten crab worth more than $1.2 billion are eaten every year in China. Indeed, mitten crabs may be too popular in China; they are now a rare sight in many parts of their traditional range.

A mitten crab (Image courtesy Mitten Crab Watch)

A mitten crab
(Image courtesy Mitten Crab Watch)

Unfortunately, they are becoming an all too common sight on the coasts of North America where they were introduced by freighters discharging their ballast water. First spotted in San Francisco bay in 1922, they now are found as far north as Portland and as far south as San Diego; they have also been spotted in Boston and Baltimore on the East coast. Mitten crabs eat fish roe and the larvae of other crabs, reducing native species; they also burrow into the banks of estuaries, causing local collapse and damaging dams and flood control projects. Some estimate their annual damage at more than $80 million.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution to the mitten crab invasion: eat them! In California, you are allowed to catch up to 35 mitten crabs each day; similar rules apply in Oregon and Maryland. But, before you dig out the butter and Old Bay, be sure to take a picture of the critter and send it to the researchers at Mitten Crab Watch. They are trying to track the mitten crab so that we can discover other ways to control the invaders. (You might also use the website as a way to find the best places to go crabbing.)